Sorrel looked up from the ancient text in her lap, pausing momentarily to notice the red-tinged light streaming in from her window, lessening in the first fiery heralds of dusk. A fat bumblebee drifted lazily near the sill, drunken with the heady fragrance of honeysuckle and red clover. Beyond the window, Sorrel could hear the incessant buzzing, chirruping, and mating calls of the woodland creatures that marked the late greening season. The sheltered vale that surrounded Sorrel’s simple cabin pulsed with life. All the wood teemed with the vibrancy of life and love. Joy and sorrow.
Travelers seldom, if ever, came here. The old road leading to the passes northeast through the Farrenghar Mountains were easily ten marches and half a world away. Half a lifetime away. Those who did find their way to this little vale, with its’ thick walls of hickory, elm, and oak were either craving solitude or running from something. Sorrel was both, she supposed.
Smiling faintly, she turned once more to the unopened and unread book in her lap. The White Book it was called, though no title could be seen upon its’ wooden cover of pale alder. None now knew whose hand had penned it’s yellow pages, but it was said to be well over a thousand years old; preserved by an Art long faded from the world. Sorrel ran her fingers over the rough surface of the book as she once again resisted cracking the cover and taking that one decisive step that could not be undone. The step that most likely would be the harbinger of her death.
The White Book, legend said, had passed through countless hands through the centuries; through the hands of poets, kings, beggars, and fools. And yet, none knew what secrets lie within its’ pages. None had solved the riddle of The White Book. All who opened and attempted to glean the fruits of the book would find that each page would fade and disappear as it was turned, the memory of what had been read dissolving into nothingness as well. Sorrel had been told that many had attempted to copy down what they had read, but to no avail. When the final page was turned, the bearer of book withered and fell, dying in anguished frustration. The secrets of The White Book were closely kept.
And so the book was passed on from hand to hand until it had come into the hands of the priest of Tir whom Sorrel had discovered dying upon her doorstep. The priest had been quite mad, but had given The White Book to Sorrel before falling on his dagger. Through his weeping and gibbering, she had gathered that the priest had never opened the book. Had never dared; and yet, the temptation to do so, the siren call to open the book and find the answer some great question that burned within him had driven him mad. Sorrel could still see the fading light in his dying eyes as his face relaxed and his flesh grew cold against her fingers. She wondered idly if madness would claim her, as well before the end.
She wondered if that would be completely undesirable.
The White Book had come into Sorrel’s possession nearly a year ago, and the woman had taken to gazing upon it, but never daring to succumb to its’ temptation. She had tried many times to rid herself of the book, but found that no matter how far she might carry the book and leave it, the book would simply reappear on her table, or atop the mantle, or under her pillow in the days that followed. The White Book had chosen her, it seemed.
Sighing, Sorrel left her chair and the book by the stone fireplace and paused before the small mirror hanging atop her chest of drawers. The mirror had been the one luxury she had taken with her when she’d left her companions on the road those years ago. When she’d left her life. No, she’d thrown her life away before that.
As if stirred by the memory, the hollowness in the pit of her stomach returned. The aching emptiness that more often than not reduced her to shaking, helpless sobs even now. The echoing cries reverberated in her ears over and over again, and Sorrel’s nails dug into the wood of the chest of drawers. She clenched her teeth and closed her eyes, silently willing the hollowness within to subside. The little cries mocked her. Begged her.
With a cry of her own, Sorrel ripped the mirror from the wall and smashed it to the ground, the reflective glass shattering in a spider’s web within the frame. Sorrel stepped over the mirror, going quickly to the window and drinking in the fading red light of dusk as it caught the thin tears trickling down her face. Taking deep breaths, long moments passed before the hollowness at last faded to be replaced by the now-familiar numbness. Outside, the sun sank beneath the tips of the trees.
The fire crackled and popped merrily as Sorrel took the black iron teakettle from the hook and poured its’ contents into a small cup. She had lit no lamps, choosing instead to let the firelight cast its’ dancing shadows about her small cabin. She sat back in her chair before the fire, sipping her tea and listening to the crickets and toads lending their voices to the other raucous cries of the night. Outside, Sorrel could see the sickle moon brushing the tips of the trees.
A slight, warm breeze through the open window caused the curtains to shift, bringing with it the scents of wildflowers and earth. And the heavy musk of man sweat. Sorrel calmly set her cup of tea down.
A figure emerged from the shadows, stepping lightly forward to let the moonlight fall softly upon his weathered face, rough with thick stubble. His gray eyes regarded Sorrel with a mixture of tenderness and pain.
“I have ridden hard in seeking you.”
Sorrel nodded slightly, looking down and then rising to regard the man before her. Aryndor looked much the same as when she had left him, except that now there were touches of gray at the temples of his otherwise dark hair. His eyes were the same, though. His eyes were the same. His shoulders were broad beneath his travel-stained woolen cloak. And Sorrel saw the wolf’s head pommel of his old sword sticking out at his side. Aryndor was never far from the sword of his fathers. Oh, how the hollowness came again! The cries! Sorrel steeled herself and fought against it, calling to the numbness and pleading for its’ return. Her voice was soft, a half-whisper when she spoke.
“Why did you not call out?”
Aryndor was long in answering, refusing even now to accuse her.
“I feared....that you would fly from me. That you would leave me no chance to speak. I would speak with you, Sorrel.”
“Speak then,” Sorrel replied, wincing at the hint of sharpness that crept into her voice “Why have you come?”
Aryndor took another step closer to Sorrel, his hand moving to her. Sorrel stepped back quickly, her eyes never leaving his, and yet silently refusing his touch. Aryndor dropped his hand, old pain flaring to life again and passing swiftly over his features before being locked away once more. How much had he been forced to lock away, Sorrel asked silently. Could any of it truly be locked away?
“Must it be so between us, Sorrel?” Aryndor asked, his voice a whisper “Is there nothing left? I have not forgotten -”
“Then you are a fool!” Sorrel lashed out, angry now, filling the aching emptiness with her rage and feeling it boil within her “You hold to what cannot be, Aryndor, as you have always done. Seven years, it has been! Am I expected to believe that there has been no one in all that time to put your memories of us to rest? Has there been no other to share your blankets on a cool night? You chase after what you cannot have, Aryndor.”
Only Aryndor’s eyes betrayed the wounds Sorrel gave him. Oh, let the numbness come! Sorrel turned away from Aryndor and to the fireplace, closing her eyes and letting the heat wash over her face. There was a long silence that followed as words that could never be spoken fell to the earth and lie fallow there. When next Aryndor spoke, his voice was stone.
“I went back, Sorrel.”
He did not explain further. There was no need. Sorrel felt a chill inch its’ way down her spine as the memories came flooding back. Seven years. The shadowed valley in the mountains above Eloruin. Oh, what folly it had been to think she could ever escape the taint of what they had done! Of what she had done. A knot of fear twisted in her stomach as she tried to keep the quaver from her voice.
“You’re mad, Aryndor. What possessed you?” A single tear slid its’ way down her cheek, the echoing cry welling up and threatening to drown out all other sound. Her skin broke out in gooseflesh as she went to Aryndor and looked up into his pale gray eyes, shaking her head slowly, imploringly. Aryndor was breathing heavily, his face a mask of old pain.
“All that is wrong between us, Sorrel....All that died between us had its’ beginning on that day, though even now I cannot name it. I....went back. To find what we lost. You said no word to me after, nothing of what happened. All I could do was watch you go. Watch you fade from me. Can you not understand why I had to go back?”
Sorrel dropped her eyes and turned, walking slowly to the window where the pale light of the sickle moon parted the shadows. She had said no word to him. Even now, she was not sure that such words existed that could begin to describe what had touched her there. The cries caressed the inner vaults of her mind, damning her, accusing her. The hollow darkness in her stomach gaped like the maw of some fiendish beast. Behind her, she could hear Aryndor’s soft footsteps coming to her and then stopping a pace away.
“Sorrel....something has left the gate.”
Sorrel barely heard him, the cries reverberating insistently. Aryndor turned her gently to face him, but even then all she could see within the soft, blurry edges of memory were the lights, the pale lights and cold, merciless touch as she was taken....Dimly, she became aware that Aryndor was shaking her.
“Sorrel, the gate was not destroyed! Do you hear me, Sorrel? The gate is open and something has come out!”